Movie and TV Martians before ‘The Martian’

Clockwise from top left: "Mars Attacks!"; "The Martian"; "War of the Worlds" and "My Favorite Martian."

Clockwise from top left: “Mars Attacks!”; “The Martian”; “War of the Worlds” and “My Favorite Martian.”

(Clockwise from top left: Warner Bros.; 20th Century Fox; American Cinematheque; Warner Bros.)

The mysteries of the Red Planet have long captured the imagination of storytellers and filmmakers, and Hollywood’s latest effort to grow life on Mars is Ridley Scott’s “The Martian,” in theaters this Friday.

In the film Matt Damon plays U.S. astronaut Mark Watney, but as per the title, he’s arguably the first Martian -- he becomes an inhabitant of the Red Planet after his crew accidentally leaves him behind.

But he’s certainly not Hollywood’s first Martian. From vicious belligerents and vengeful ghosts to silly soldiers and lovable goofs, here are some of the previous depictions of Martians on the big and small screens.

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Marvin the Martian (1948)

Marvin the Martian

(Cartoon Network)

A decade after Orson Welles’ infamous radio adaptation of H.G. Wells’ seminal “War of the Worlds” made Martians the scariest creatures in the galaxy, Warner Bros.’ “Looney Tunes” shorts introduced audiences to the significantly less-sinister Marvin the Martian, a childlike adversary to Bugs Bunny in the 1949 Chuck Jones-directed short "Haredevil Hare." However, he's probably better-known for the Daffy Duck short "Duck Dodgers in the 24½th Century," also directed by Jones, in which his vague visage is repeatedly blown up by dynamite. He’s since popped up in just about every iteration of the “Looney Tunes” franchise, including the shows "Tiny Toon Adventures" (1990-1995) "Animaniacs" (1993-1998) and "Duck Dodgers" (2003-2005), as well as the features "Space Jam" (1996) and "Looney Tunes: Back in Action" (2003).

"War of the Worlds" (1953)

War of the Worlds

(American Cinematheque)

The Space Race with the Soviet Union had Hollywood looking to the stars in the 1950s and ’60s, with Mars and its inhabitants often getting the spotlight. Puppeteer-turned-producer George Pal adapted “War of the Worlds” in 1953, with manta-ray-shaped ships replacing the tripodal Martian vessels of the book. The Martians themselves are creepy, tentacled blobs with multi-colored lenses for eyes. The film picked up an Academy Award for special effects. In the 2005 remake, director Steven Spielberg and star Tom Cruise brought Wells' Victorian sci-fi tale into the post-Sept. 11 present, depicting the invaders -- back in their intimidating weaponized tripods -- as a remorseless, genocidal war machine attacking crowded urban areas. However, we never confirm that the aliens in the 2005 version are indeed Martians.

"My Favorite Martian" (1963-1966)

My Favorite Martian

(Warner Bros.)

On the small screen, Ray Walston became a household name with “My Favorite Martian,” which ran on CBS from 1963 to 1966. He played a Martian who crash lands on Earth and tries to pass as an Earthling named "Martin" (get it?). Otherwise human-looking, Martin had a few alien powers like telepathy, invisibility and retractable antennae.

"Santa Claus Conquers the Martians" (1964)

Santa Claus Conquers the Martians


Often derided as one of the worst films ever made, "Santa Claus" finds St. Nick kidnapped by Martians in order to teach the planet's repressed children how to have fun. Or something. The low-budget comedy was largely forgotten until the crew of "Mystery Science Theater 3000" introduced it to a new generation decades later.

"Total Recall" (1990)

Total Recall

(Warner Bros.)

Set on Mars (or is it all just a dream?) and loosely based on a Philip K. Dick story, this garish Paul Verhoeven-directed satire pits a man with a scrambled brain (Arnold Schwarzenegger) against a greedy corporation trying to control Mars' resources -- including a hidden wealth of oxygen. The film's extinct ancient Martians are represented primarily through artifacts and artwork, although the mutated human inhabitants could be considered Martians, depending on citizenship rules. The film won an Oscar for visual effects.

"Biker Mice From Mars" (1993-1996)

Biker Mice From Mars

(Tony Barnard / Los Angeles Times)

One of the many cartoons/toy franchises inspired by the success of “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” was the syndicated series “Biker Mice From Mars.” The title pretty much says it all.

"Mars Attacks!" (1996)

Mars Attacks!

(Warner Bros.)

The same year that “Independence Day” ruled the box office, Tim Burton offered a spoof of alien invasion movies with “Mars Attacks!” inspired by the Topps trading cards of the 1960s. Boasting an enormous cast, “Attacks!” found the likes of Pierce Brosnan, Danny DeVito, Natalie Portman and Jack Nicholson (in a two roles) facing big-brained, loud-mouthed Martians who disintegrate first and ask questions -- which all sound like "ACK! ACK!" -- later.

"My Favorite Martian" (1999)

My Favorite Martian

(Joyce Rudolph )

This big screen remake of the '60s series featured a more-bug-eyed-than-usual Christopher Lloyd as the title alien. Walston popped up in a supporting role for nostalgia points, but the film flopped anyway.

"Mission to Mars" and "Red Planet" (2000)

Red Planet

(Frank Connor / Warner Bros.)

The dawn of the 21st century – and the increasing sophistication of CGI – found Hollywood filmmakers returning to the fourth rock from the sun in search of inhabitants. Just as moviegoers could choose between "Deep Impact" and "Armageddon" in 1998, the year 2000 brought not one, but two Mars-based films to theaters. In Brian DePalma’s “Mission to Mars” Tim Robbins, Gary Sinise and Don Cheadle face godlike beings who reveal they seeded Earth with life millions of years ago. In a twist anticipating "The Martian," Cheadle's character is at one point left behind to survive alone on the mysterious planet. Meanwhile, Val Kilmer, Tom Sizemore and Carrie-Anne Moss met swarms of insect-like Martians in the largely-forgotten “Red Planet,” although the bulk of the film's threat comes from a malfunctioning robot.

"Ghosts of Mars" (2001)

Ghosts of Mars

(Neil Jacobs / Screen Gems)

John Carpenter’s “Ghosts of Mars” (2001) mashes up horror, sci-fi and cop movie conventions. Earthlings living in a terraformed colony disturb an ancient Martian burial ground (think "Poltergeist" on Mars). Possessions and decapitations ensue. Can Ice Cube, Natasha Henstridge and Jason Statham punch their way through the ghostly threat? Of course they can.

Martian Manhunter, "Justice League" (2001-2004)

Justice League

(Cartoon Network)

Cartoon Network's animated take on the DC Comics superhero team included the obvious candidates -- Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman -- but also let J'onn J'onzz the Martian Manhunter (top right) in on the fun. Voiced with cool detachment by Carl Lumbly, the green-skinned shapeshifter and telepath often stole the show from his more famous counterparts.

"Doom" (2005)


(Keith Hamshere / Universal Studios)

Based on the long-running video game franchise, the big screen "Doom" sends Marines Dwayne Johnson and Karl Urban to Mars in order to battle vicious creatures who are really just humans who have been modified by ancient Martian chromosomes.

"Mars Needs Moms" (2011)

Mars Needs Moms

(ImageMovers Digital)

Martians were the subject of two back-to-back Disney flops earlier this decade. Based on the book by Berkeley Breathed, Walt Disney Studios' animated “Mars Needs Moms” finds a little boy stowing away on a Martian ship in order to rescue his abducted mom. The Martians look like stretched-out E.T.s. with oversized hips, but the humans look just as weird.

"John Carter" (2012)

John Carter

(Frank Connor / AP)

Meanwhile, Walt Disney Pictures' “John Carter” was a long overdue adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ beloved "Barsoom" books, and featured a wide variety of Martian life. U.S. Civil War vet John Carter (played by Taylor Kitsch) is transported to Barsoom (the local name for Mars) where he finds himself in the middle of a planetary war. In the film, Martians come in all shapes, sizes and intelligence levels -- from the two warring humanoid tribes the Zodangas and the Heliumates to the beastial Thoats (which Carter rides), plus a puppy-like critter named Woola and a giant white ape. Ancient skulls of sabertooth Banths are also scattered throughout, lending a sense of long-term history. However, the film was sunk by a bloated budget, negative advanced press and problematic marketing.


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